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Dear Anonymous Dad

Tens of thousands of children conceived by donors are grown up now and wondering who their fathers are. Advances in DNA testing are helping them find out

Dear Anonymous Dad

Amanda Serenyi’s father turned out not to be her father; she was donor-conceived. (Photo: Gary Fong/Genesis; DNA strand: Bluebay2014/iStock)

Amanda Serenyi’s father told her almost nothing about his four older children from a previous marriage. But one of them found her name on her grandmother’s obituary and then on Facebook. Then, that half sister revealed a family secret: Before Serenyi was conceived, her father had a vasectomy.

That is how Serenyi found out she was donor-conceived. Her mother paid a secret visit in 1977 to a doctor who was “performing miracles”—artificially inseminating women using anonymous donors’ sperm—at a University of California San Francisco fertility clinic. She knew nothing else about Serenyi’s biological father.

Serenyi spent subsequent months roaming San Francisco streets speculating that middle-aged strangers with similar physical traits as hers could be siblings. She wondered if one of the graying men she saw could be her father.

Until recently, Serenyi would have kept wondering. But in the last decade, the emergence of inexpensive and increasingly popular genetic testing has blown the lid off of anonymity for children born from third-party reproduction. Now, almost anyone can go online and piece together a family tree using social networks and direct-to-consumer DNA testing sites like 23andMe and Ancestry.com.

Armed with this information, donor-conceived people are unraveling family secrets, finding siblings they never knew they had, and interrupting the lives of men who sold their sperm assuming they would remain anonymous.

They are also gaining a voice. Many donor-conceived people now run websites, blogs, and forums to help each other and raise awareness. Some have turned to activism, using fighting words like “eugenics” and “human trafficking.” A few are pushing back on the unregulated, multibillion-dollar fertility industry: They are threatening court battles and petitioning the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for tougher restrictions.

Serenyi took a DNA test with 23andMe in 2012. A year and a half later, she had a “predicted first cousin” alert, and within days, she was staring at a picture of her biological father with his two daughters, one posed in a white dress almost identical to one of Serenyi’s own childhood photos. So far, that man has shunned contact with Serenyi, except to send a yearly medical report through his lawyer. She also found a half brother, who is only two months older than her and donor-conceived by the same father. They met recently for drinks in D.C., and Serenyi joked it was the start of a sibling reunion: “There could be 20 more of us.”

Serenyi’s confusing experience is like the experience of many others who face profound questions about their parentage and identity.

NO ONE KNOWS FOR SURE how many children are born each year using sperm and egg donors. One 2010 study estimated 30,000 to 60,000 children were born that year using sperm donation. But the law does not require fertility clinics to maintain such statistics, and only 20 to 40 percent of women voluntarily report their child’s birth to sperm and egg banks, according to Wendy Kramer, founder of the 60,000-member Donor Sibling Registry (DSR).

Furthermore, the majority of donor-conceived people still do not know their origins. One 2011 study found that half of the children conceived by egg donation and three-quarters of those conceived by donor insemination had no knowledge that either their mother or father is not a genetic parent.

The first recorded account of “donor-assisted” reproduction took place in 1884 when a Philadelphia doctor secretly inseminated a sedated woman with sperm from his “most attractive” medical student. The practice became more popular during the baby boom after World War II, and third-party reproduction exploded in the ’80s and ’90s as infertile couples began seeking in vitro fertilization (IVF) and single women and homosexuals wanted to have families.

But how donor-conceived children might feel about their parentage has attracted little attention.

Handout

Matt Doran (Handout)

Matt Doran, 32, hopes to change that. In 2013, he started a social network called DonorChildren.com, which now has 3,000 members who use the site to find family members, share resources, and tell their stories. “We are an unknown, voiceless demographic that society doesn’t know about or care about,” says Doran. “It is hard for people to empathize with what we go through.”

Growing up, Doran’s parents kept hidden that they used an anonymous sperm donor to conceive him and his sister. As Doran reached puberty, he struggled to connect with his father and noticed physical differences. Then at 25, he and his wife saw their first daughter on a sonogram: “It surfaced the question I had about my own conception.” Doran’s father told him the truth later that night. Doran remembers it as an “out-of-body experience.”

Doran, a Melbourne, Fla., aerospace engineer, began searching for his biological father in 2011. DNA tests, internet sleuthing, distant relatives, and reporters led him to a man dubbed “Dr. Papa,” who is rumored to have fathered more than 300 children by sperm donation—Doran is one of them.

Using an anonymous email address, Doran reached out to his biological father. After their second exchange, his father wrote: “I most probably participated in giving you life and exceptional genes. … I should not have to be put through any personal discomfort because of that act of kind service. Good night and good life.”

NICHOLAS ISEL, 33, also heard that he had exceptional genes. At age 15, he learned that he and his sister were “Nobel babies,” products of eugenicist Robert Graham’s Repository for Germinal Choice, a California-based sperm bank that started in the 1980s and claimed to accept only “genius” specimens. The repository became known as “The Nobel Bank” and produced 215 babies before closing shortly after Graham’s death in 1997.

Paul Harris/Liaison/Getty Images

Dr. Robert Graham (left) fills liquid nitrogen into tanks that contain frozen sperm in 1982. (Paul Harris/Liaison/Getty Images)

Isel says he detached himself from his “abusive” father as a teenager. He latched onto the little he knew of his biological dad, called “Donor Coral” in the repository catalog and described as “a professional man of very high standing in his science, has had a book published.”

Journalist David Plotz documented the repository and Isel’s experience in his 2005 book The Genius Factory and a subsequent 2017 documentary. Plotz helped Isel find and meet his biological dad in 2003. “Donor Coral” turned out to be an obscure Florida doctor who fathered 30 children through the repository, 18 with his six ex-wives, and numerous more through other sperm banks.

Now Isel, a Chicago-area roofer, says he is only now recovering from the shock of learning about his biological father. He has been married for 17 years and has two children, but fatherhood still terrifies him: “I have two father figures; neither one is a good role model.”

Handout

One of the 215 babies produced from Graham’s “Nobel Bank” was Nicholas Isel (Handout)

Isel is channeling some of his pain into activism, which he calls a “moral responsibility.” In 2016, he submitted a citizen petition with the Food and Drug Administration, asking the agency to extend the time span that sperm and egg banks are required to hold a donor’s and recipient’s personal and medical information from 10 years to 50, allowing donor-conceived children more time to access it.

Last year, the FDA indicated that Isel’s petition is still under review. If denied, Isel plans to take his case to the courts. Meanwhile, he has teamed up with the children’s rights group Them Before Us to draft a new petition they plan to submit to the FDA later this year.

The Donor Sibling Registry’s Kramer and her now-adult, donor-conceived son, Ryan Kramer, also petitioned the FDA in 2016 to ban anonymity, require genetic and medical testing for donors, and require comprehensive record keeping for sperm and egg banks—18 months later, the petition remains under review.

Kramer said her organization has also pursued the National Institutes of Health, the surgeon general, and numerous legislators, to no avail: “[The fertility industry] is big and powerful and they have lobbyists who squelch any regulation immediately. We are a little charity up against Goliath.”

David Zalubowski/AP

Wendy and Ryan Kramer in 2006 (David Zalubowski/AP)

THE UNITED STATES is the world’s largest exporter of sperm, mostly because of its lack of regulation and the fact that sperm donors can earn up to $1,000 per month. Egg donors make $10,000 for a completed retrieval. With increasing demand for babies coming from single women and infertile and gay couples, the global sperm-bank business could reach a net worth of $5 billion by 2025, according to the California-based Grand View Research.

Sperm and egg banks offer thick, comprehensive catalogs and online databases touting donors’ postgraduate degrees and desirable physical and professional traits.

U.S. fertility clinics do not have to maintain or share information about donors. They do not have to keep records on how many children a given donor produces—one man can produce hundreds of children. Many clinics claim to cap the number of offspring per sperm donor at 25 families, and others more conservatively at 10. Kramer said it is normal for DSR members to reach “spreadsheet status,” finding dozens, if not hundreds, of siblings using DNA testing.

Furthermore, a donor’s medical history is mostly self-reported, so donor-conceived children often know nothing about mental illnesses and congenital defects. The FDA only requires clinics to test donors for STDs and a handful of other diseases, including cystic fibrosis and Tay-Sachs.

Prospective parents choose from “anonymous” or “open-identity” donors. “Open identity” means donor offspring can contact the bank when they reach age 18 and the bank will facilitate communication with the genetic parent. In 2011, Washington became the first state to make “open identity” the default unless a sperm donor requests anonymity.

But DNA testing is rendering anonymity claims obsolete, and it keeps getting cheaper. The price for a basic kit from 23andMe dropped from $1,000 a decade ago to last year’s Black Friday sale of $100. A cheek swab or a vial of saliva can yield information regarding ancestry and maternal and paternal family lines.

MEANWHILE, HOLLYWOOD HAS RUN with these new family storylines in recent years. MTV’s 2013 reality show called Generation Cryo followed one teen as she traveled around the country to find her 15 half siblings and their sperm-donor father. The Kids Are Alright, a 2010 movie, tells of a lesbian couple’s two teenage kids who set out to find their sperm-donor father. The 2013 comedy Delivery Man depicts a man who finds out he is the father of 533 children.

But for some donor-conceived people, these stories are painfully real. Nearly half of donor offspring are disturbed that money was involved in their conception, according to a 2010 study by the Commission on Parenthood’s Future. They are more than twice as likely to struggle with substance abuse and report problems with the law before age 25 and 1.5 times as likely to report depression and other mental health issues. Two-thirds of adult donor offspring concurred with the statement, “My sperm donor is half of who I am.”

Many have started websites, blogs, and Facebook groups with titles like “We Are Donor Conceived,” and “Confessions of a Cryokid.” Alana Newman, who is donor-conceived and runs an online forum called “Anonymous Us,” says, “You don’t feel human. You feel like there’s a doll manufacturer who cranked out 100 dolls and you are just one of them. You are a product that someone bought.” Even after Matt Doran’s biological father cut him off, he kept persisting. Every Father’s Day, he sends him a card. Recently, they began communicating again, and his biological father, whom he asked WORLD not to name, took a DNA test to confirm his parentage. Now, he signs his messages with “Pops.” He recently wrote: “I would like very much at some point to get to know my grandchildren and your wife and my daughter [Doran’s sister].”

This fall, Doran plans to take his wife and four children to Kansas to meet his biological father.


 

Associated Press

Amerasian children in Ho Chi Minh City in 1972 (Associated Press)

‘Children of the dust’

Amerasians turn to DNA testing to find their GI fathers

In a rural, postwar Vietnamese village, Jannies Nguyen remembers as a girl regularly paddling out in a boat to peer at her reflection in the water and try to picture her father, a U.S. serviceman she had never met. Her mother said she looked just like him. 

Nguyen is one of tens of thousands of children born to Vietnamese mothers and GI fathers during or shortly after the Vietnam War. Veterans left behind these children, called “Amerasians”—some half-black, some half-white—and then denied or tried to forget them. Some never knew they existed.

Nguyen’s parents secretly married, but war separated them. After her father left Vietnam, Communist officials threatened her mother, and she moved with Nguyen to a remote village, burning pictures, letters, even her daughter’s birth certificate—anything that would trace them to an American soldier and jeopardize their lives. She knew Nguyen’s father by a nickname and only remembered the first two letters of his last name.

For more than 40 years, that man remained a mystery.

But in the last decade, DNA testing has brought new possibilities to Amerasians like Nguyen. The proliferation of inexpensive, direct-to-consumer genetic testing is allowing many of them to find their GI fathers, who are now hitting their mid-60s or early 70s. Some Amerasians are finally gaining U.S. citizenship for themselves and their families after decades of waiting. Hundreds still remain in Vietnam with renewed hope that DNA testing will provide the proof they need to come to America.

Three years ago Nguyen, 46, took a DNA test with Ancestry.com. Within months she had a second-cousin match, a Florida man she found on Facebook, and began messaging. In July Nguyen received a text from a man who confirmed he is her father.

That text has led to many more conversations. In August Nguyen’s father visited her Oklahoma City home and attended her son’s football game. Nguyen says, “He cries a lot. He keeps telling me he is sorry and he didn’t mean to leave us behind.”

The Vietnamese called Amerasian children bui doi, or “children of the dust,” and treated them as unwanted leftovers from an invading army in post-war Vietnam. Amerasian children endured abject poverty and harsh discrimination. Nguyen’s mother shaved Nguyen’s curly hair, and she was not allowed to attend school during her early years. Other children spat on, taunted, and beat her up almost daily; at age 10 she taught herself boxing so she could fight back. 

More than 3,000 Vietnam orphans left in 1975 during the tumultuous final days of war. Others came to the United States after Congress enacted legislation in 1987 granting them special immigration status. Since then, nearly 25,000 Amerasians and more than 55,000 family members have immigrated to the United States. Still, fewer than 5 percent have found their fathers.

When Nguyen and her mother immigrated to Oklahoma City in 1990, she remembers looking around the airport for her father. But Nguyen’s mother discouraged her desire to find him: “She didn’t want to mess up his life.” Meanwhile, her father presumed they had died when reports came that a bomb wiped out the region where they lived. He still attempted to find them and told Nguyen he always thought, “What if?”

Nguyen’s experiences compelled her to help others. In 2014, she started Amerasian Children of Vietnam Veterans. It is one of a handful of advocacy groups that host get-togethers, offer assistance with genetic testing, and raise funds for DNA kits and related costs for poor Vietnamese Amerasians. Nguyen’s group is currently assisting 50 Amerasians in the United States and 200 in Vietnam.

Ex-Navy man and retired CPA Paul Wickman is also helping. He co-runs a private Facebook group called Amerasian Children Looking for Their American GI Fathers. Sometimes DNA results are confusing or inconclusive, and Wickman helps Amerasians piece together their family tree using military records, obituaries, social media, and internet sleuthing. The process is complicated, “but without DNA testing it would be virtually hopeless,” he said.

Despite DNA proof, some GI fathers still deny their paternity and reject their Amerasian children. Wickman told me about one serviceman in his early 80s who has refused multiple restricted-delivery letters from his Amerasian child. He was married during the Vietnam War and has never told his wife about his infidelity.

Still, most veterans are reaching old age and want to rectify old war wounds. On Wickman’s Facebook page, one man recently posted a video of his girlfriend meeting her father with a caption: “My girlfriend and I finally found … her family through DNA. [She was] born in the Vietnam conflict to an American father she never knew. Today after 47 years they united and embraced for the very first time.” —M.J.

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson

Mary Jackson is a writer who lives in the San Francisco Bay area with her husband and three young children.